By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
There was a time when triathletes were a blank check to the bicycle retailer: affluent, upwardly mobile and ready to spend without asking for a discount. Selling bikes to triathletes above $3000 was easy. Triathletes accounted for the majority of full-margin, non-discounted bikes sales in the higher price categories.
But the bicycle retail industry’s repetitive bad habits and inability to develop new sales and marketing methods at both the bike brand and dealer level have compromised the once profitable triathlon bike market. As a result, the triathlon bike business has taken a massive hit from the days of, “Triathletes are willing to spend anything to go faster and always pay full price.”
The marketing script used to be: hype a new superbike with teasers and white papers, launch it with “preorders”, sell out of the first production run early and try to fill orders through the early season with the bikes being gone entirely by May or June. Those were also the days when Ironman races sold out in minutes. Buyers were ready to spend, often sight unseen, and ready to enter expensive events a year in advance.
Most of that has changed as the demographic of the sport has evolved to decidedly down-market and entry-level. Now, the “superbike” is a super flop. Circular debates about which bike is “fastest” and cryptic tech-speak with “white paper” slides showing bike drag, speed and yaw angles ignores the reality that the median long distance triathlete averages about 18 MPH on a bike course while the latest “super bike” is wind tunnel testing at speeds often 50% faster than the rank n’ file athlete will ever see in their “A” race.
Triathlon has filled from the bottom. While there are a few impressive age group performances the vast population of triathletes especially at longer distances, have filled the sport in the back 70% of finishing times. It has become an “every(wo)man” sport. And in the case of the fastest 10% of athletes at big races like Ironman, those people are not paying retail for a bike anyway.
It’s the bottom 70% of the sport where any remaining business may exist.
As that population of citizen-athletes entered the sport they were largely ignored by a bicycle industry locked into a repetitive script of developing new bicycles that spiraled upward in price and complexity. The tired script of, “Tested lowest in drag, developed in the wind tunnel” rings hollow on the only remaining full price consumer, the entry-level triathlon consumer. The market has not followed the sport downward in price while it spiraled upward in hype.
“The greatest failing of the bike industry has been to look at bikes in triathlon, not people in triathlon.”
Perhaps the greatest failing of the triathlon bike industry has been to look at bikes in triathlon, not people in triathlon. As a result the industry has failed to address the single largest market opportunity in the sport, an entry price-point bicycle that does double-duty as a road bike and a triathlon bike, a “multisport bike”, in the sub-$2000 price category.
While bike brands have added new sub-category after sub-category of mountain bikes with different wheel sizes, “gravel grinders”, disc brake road bikes, fat bikes, e-bikes, high head tube comfort road bikes and a host of emerging categories they utterly missed the low-hanging fruit of the entry-level triathlete.
Because the industry missed the entry-level demand from triathletes and wound up filling it by bolting aerobars on road bikes, a poorly conceived workaround, they alienated their consumership with the narrative that triathletes are always up-scale big spenders. Now triathlon bike retailers, and bike brands, are stuck with a lot of expensive bikes. But they have no practical, sub-$2000 bikes to sell at full margin that are specifically intended for entry-level triathletes.
The largest single remaining opportunity for bike retailers is the relatively entry- level, full price, non-discount customer: the new triathlete.
New triathletes need their own bike, a “Volksbike” that is inexpensive, comfortable, safe, looks cool and is easy for triathletes to ride. They don’t need another $15,000.00 superbike that takes hours to sell, feeds the “sponsored athlete” discount narrative and eats up three months of rent from the retailer just to gather dust on the sales floor and eventually die a quiet retail death on an anonymous eBay auction or “sponsorship” deal to the local hotshot that the bottom 90% of triathletes never see.
Author Tom Demerly has raced triathlons and worked in the triathlon industry since 1984, completing over 200 races including the Ironman World Triathlon Championships in Kona, Hawaii in 1986 and Ironman events in Canada, New Zealand and the U.S. He has participated in the Discovery Channel Eco-Challenge, The Raid Gauloises, The Marathon des Sables, The Antarctic Marathon and the Jordan Telecom Desert Cup. He raced bicycles as an elite amateur in Belgium for the Nike/VeloNews/Gatorade Cycling Team and is three-time Michigan USA Cycling State Champion. He is a former member of a U.S. Army National Guard Long Range Surveillance Team (LRS) and now works as an aerospace and defense columnist for TheAviationist.com, the world’s foremost defense and aerospace blog published in Rome, Italy.